Sylvia Lugo entered the lowriding scene like many other women: as the wife of a lowrider. She and her late husband, who at the time was putting money aside to build his cars, attended shows together. After assembling his first lowrider, a 1968 Impala, he was diagnosed with cancer in 2012. Through his fatal battle, he continued building his second car, a 1969 Chevy Caprice.
“He told me I could do whatever I wanted with the cars, so after he passed away, I kept the cars in the garage. I would open the garage and just look at them until I thought, I’m going to start taking them out,” Lugo told FIERCE.
Wanting to keep the ranflas in his car club, Lugo contacted the crew to see if she could take her husband’s place as an active member of the club, but she was faced with the same machismo that many women in the lowrider scene had experienced before her. This car club, like many others, was men-only — and it had been for decades.
“When they told me I could cruise with the car club’s plaque in the back window only if a male member of the club drove me around, I stepped away,” she said.
Lugo, a Chicana in her 50s, went on to become the first female member of Pegasus Car Club. She is part of a trend in the lowriding scene where women are moving out of the traditional roles they have held as wives and daughters and breaking into clubs that have barred them for decades. Currently, USO Car Club’s Los Angeles chapter accepts women members, and GoodTimes Car Club in San Jose, Calif. has a woman president.
Sylvia Lugo posing with Paranoid, the 1969 Chevy Caprice she inherited from her late husband, at a car show | Courtesy of Sylvia Lugo
“Lowriding has not only been dependant on the bodies of cars, but also on the bodies of women,” said Denise Sandoval, a Chican@ studies professor at Cal State University of Northridge whose research looks at the ways idealized images of women’s bodies have been used in lowrider art and magazines and how, as supporters, women would bring the kids to car shows or take behind-the-scene administrative roles in car clubs they were not able to join.
“We cannot downplay women using their traditional roles to create a space for themselves, but now there’s so many more opportunities for women,” said Sandoval, who curated the exhibition The High Art of Riding Low: Ranflas, Corazón e Inspiración at the Petersen Automotive Museum.
Since the Chicano movement of the ‘60s and ‘70s, women have been ditching the shotgun seat of their boyfriends’ lowriders to take the wheel of their own rides, and when they were turned away from men-only car clubs, they started their own. Most notably, there was the Lady Bugs, a women-only car club made up of Volkswagen Beetle-owners that came onto the Los Angeles lowrider scene in the early ‘70s.
But women car clubs have struggled to gain a foothold in the scene. When the Black Widows Car Club started in 2000, they were the only women’s car club in Los Angeles. These days, several more have popped up, including the Ladies First Car Club in San Jose.
“A lot of times the housework and the childcare falls on the women, which can cause many of these car clubs to come and go,” said Carmen Vasquez, co-founder of the Black Widows.
Black Widow Mari Estrada working on her 1954 Oldsmobile Super 88 Deluxe Coupe | Photo Credit: Domenic Mingirulli
She said the key to the Black Widows outlasting other women’s car clubs is their flexibility with the club’s rules. The club is made up of six women and is not run like others. For instance, they do not have a government, they are not strict about attendance and they do not limit themselves to what cars join the club. The members drive everything from ‘59 Chevy Bel Air bombs to bright pink ‘56 Pontiac Star Chiefs.
“We’ve learned to work around each other’s lives. Like if somebody can’t make it to a show, we don’t hold it against her like maybe some of the guy car clubs would. For us, your family and priorities come first because this is a hobby, something you enjoy doing, but it won’t run your life,” said Vasquez.
Just as lowriders traditions have been passed down through generations of men, the Black Widows are gifting their knowledge — and soon their cars — to their daughters, who have accompanied them to car shows since they were babies. A lot of the knowledge for car building and customization is learned through apprenticeships, and having access to a garage is necessary. But because women were barred from car clubs for so long, Sandoval says they missed out on these opportunities.
Still, there are more women builders and painters than ever before, and in the hopes of getting more young women to enroll in her automotive classes, Pati Fairchild, an auto body instructor at El Camino College, created a series of free workshops to teach women the basics of mechanics.
The instructor is often approached by shop owners who are looking to hire her female students for technician positions over men, who often fall into the automotive industry because they come from a family of mechanics.
“If a woman is interested in cars, it’s because she is really interested and wants to learn. She has to overcome a couple of barriers, not only in her own mind but from friends and family, and once she’s in the class, everybody’s watching so she does a great job,” said Fairchild.
The lucrative lowrider industry is not limited to businesses in car customization. Women like entrepreneur LaLa Romero have built a brand around lowrider aesthetics, selling women’s clothing and accessories, while artists like Leanne “Elrod” Rodriguez have become well known for commissioned portraits of lowriders.
Elrod, whose work is featured in Sandoval’s The High Art of Riding Low exhibition, was inspired to start painting lowriders by the car customizers in her life. The more she got involved in the scene, she noticed there wasn’t much of a female perspective in the industry.
Angel Lust, a portrait by Elrod of a woman-owned 57 Chevy Bel Air, seen at The High Art of Riding Low exhibition at the Petersen Automotive Museum | Courtesy of Elrod
“Not every woman in the car culture is a model like the magazines might suggest. Some of us are collectors, artists and plain-old enthusiasts, just like the guys are. But we don’t get the same credibility as they do,” said Elrod, who wanted to challenge herself both artistically and politically with the subject matter to show there is a feminine voice in the custom car culture that’s not sexualized.
Elrod displayed her work at art shows until she was contacted by members of the Lifestyle Car Club, who commissioned a portrait of a member’s car for his birthday. When he started displaying the piece next to his car at lowrider super shows, it created a buzz. Soon, Elrod was receiving calls and emails from people who wanted similar portraits of their cars.
“I have guys at car shows ask me to pose in front of their cars, and I’m like, ‘no, I won’t pose with your car, but your car can pose for me so I can paint it,’” said Elrod.